Somewhere in the past, Dario Argento once contemplated an idea of taping a row of sharp needles underneath the eyes of cinema audiences viewing his films, thus making it impossible for them to look away even during the goriest scenes. For obvious reasons, this idea never came to fruition, but he did hold on to the concept and in 1987 realised it in the silver screen instead–and so, the film Opera was born. Starring Christina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Baberini and Daria Nicolodi, with a soundtrack boasting such names as Brian Eno and Claudio Simonetti, Opera continues in the footsteps of the maestro’s previous works. It’s gruesome death scenes and hauntingly beautiful cinematography have enthralled audiences for decades and now, thanks to CultFilms gorgeous 2K restoration, we have an opportunity to see it in all its colourful glory.
Opera follows an aspiring young singer named Betty (Marsillach). After the great diva Mara Cecova is injured in a freak accident, Betty, Cecova’s understudy, finds herself thrust in to a leading role in an avant-garde production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Despite her initial hesitations, Betty’s performance turns out to be an unequivocal success. However, the new-found fame comes with dark consequences as a masked assailant starts killing the people around her, forcing Betty to be the unwilling witness to his heinous crimes.
It is of course no coincidence that Argento chose MacBeth as the focal point of his film. The Shakespearian tragedy offers a great backdrop for a horror story but perhaps more importantly, the opera happens to be Argento’s own personal favourite by Verdi. The beauty of the music as well as the brutality of the violence are what attracted him to the piece, and supposedly what ultimately made him choose it as the framework for his story. This is of course very much echoed in the film itself as well as its soundtrack. It is as visually beautiful as it is brutal, and the various pieces of classical music are contrasted with loud and unsettling heavy metal compositions. In the interview provided in the extra features of the release, Argento muses on how, with Opera, he wanted to create his own version of Macbeth and while the film may not be a direct copy of the story, it certainly resonates many key points of the play, such as manipulation, guilt and inevitable madness. Much like Macbeth, Betty too receives a prediction of her forthcoming fortune, only not from witches, but via anonymous phone calls. The parallels between the Scottish general’s ambitious wife and the masked killer’s depraved lady love are also indisputable and while Betty’s ending may not be quite as tragic as Macbeth’s, in the end she too is left wracked with guilt. The famous curse that follows the so-called Scottish play of course also plays its part in the story, and as it goes, even the film set was not immune, as the production was haunted by a series of weird accidents (including Ian Charleson breaking his leg and putting the filming on hold for a while).
In true Argento fashion, Opera is not a film overly concerned with things like plausible storyline or cohesive character development. While the plot is certainly not the worst of its kind, it is still far from being in any way believable, or in some points, even logical. Very much the same goes for the characters, whose reactions to some rather traumatic events will leave some viewers shaking their head in disbelief, if not all out yelling at their TV. However, these small little conventions of filmmaking are not really the thing that make Argento’s film so attractive. Sure enough, they are part of the allure, as most fans of the maestro will find them a somewhat endearing feature of his work, but the key point is the splendiferous visuals his films have to offer. In all honesty, when thinking of Argento’s films, I have never considered Opera to be one of the more stylised ones. My memory of it has always been of soft images with faded, dull colours with nothing very special about them. However, after seeing this particular 2K restoration, my mind has been permanently changed. It is as if the whole film has been brought back to life. The colour grading has been executed with instructions from the director, a fact that is blatantly obvious from the get go. The blues, greens and reds shine bright and vibrant, giving the film that trademark early-to-mid-career Argento ambiance, all supported by Ronnie Taylor’s masterful cinematography. While I have always enjoyed the roaming camerawork, as well as the various POV shots that Opera has to offer, the detail in this newly restored version is just simply sublime. With blood redder than red, the kill scenes look fresh and even more brutal than I could have possibly remembered them. The famous scene involving Daria Nicolodi and a peephole is elevated to a new level. Even before rather inconspicuous scenes like the killer ripping Betty’s performance outfit to shreds has a new lease of life; you can literally see every fibre of fabric flying about, making it a thing of beauty. It is truly amazing to be able to view a film you’ve watched before and see it as if watching it for the very first time. While in the past I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Opera as the film to start with when it comes to Argento’s rather extensive filmography, I do have to say that when it comes to this particular version, I would quite happily suggest it as a starting off point. It may not be the very best of Argento, but seeing it as he originally intended makes a massive difference.
Besides the stunning 2K restoration, the dual-format release by CultFilms offers three extra features: “Aria of Fear” – a brand new interview with the director, discussing Opera in detail, “Opera Backstage” – a look behind the scenes of making of the film, as well as a Restoration Featurette – demonstrating the difference between the old and new versions. The most interesting out of the three is Aria of Fear, which offers a fascinating insight to Argento’s own personal views on the film, as well as some fun anecdotes about the filming process. Opera Backstage is simply a collection of behind the scenes videos, but works as a fantastic companion piece to the interview. Many of the technical aspects mentioned in the interview, such as the rotating crane that was used for the ravens’ POV shots, are featured in the videos and give you a good understanding of just how technically demanding Opera really was. Opera Backstage also features several videos of Argento working his directorial magic, which on its own makes for very interesting viewing. The Restoration Featurette is a short collection of different scenes, showing the difference between the old and newly restored versions. While you’ll be able to see the difference just by watching the film, this featurette is still definitely worth a watch, as the modifications made are truly drastic. The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is great quality with clean and clear-cut sound and the release includes both Italian and English soundtracks, together with optional English subtitles.